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OPINION - WHY ITS GOOD TO TALK

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Last week prime minister Tony Blair launched his Big Conversation with the public. The cynics are already decrying ...
Last week prime minister Tony Blair launched his Big Conversation with the public. The cynics are already decrying both the process and the predicted outcome. Will anybody turn up? On whose terms will the 'conversation' be conducted? And will anybody in government take any notice?

This initiative has prompted me to wonder whether we have become so cynical about the political process that winning and retaining power has become the only purpose.

Shouldn't the political process itself be valued as a recognised space for discussion and deliberation where differing views and concerns are debated?

Governments only govern by consent. In a country comprised of diverse communities and cultures, such consent has to be earned and governments need to find ways of testing their legitimacy - particularly in times of low electoral turnout.

The same is true for local government. In fact, in these days of partnership working, neighbourhood renewal and the like, it is fundamentally the role of the local democratically accountable authority to take the lead in safeguarding and revitalising the political process of local governance.

The argument will need to be persuasive since it will take time, effort and money. But it is not enough to assume that councillors have the mandate they once did - they too need to legitimatise their right to govern.

There is a danger that the new political arrangements in local government have reinforced powerful executives by concentrating power into fewer hands. While this, coupled with the new structures, should lead to more efficient decision-making, it is an unwise executive that fails to acknowledge the political fall-out from losing touch with the electorate.

The overview and scrutiny function provides the opportunity to do something about this.

Scrutiny reviews engage the public in conversations about the issues which affect their daily lives. Non-executive councillors also have a critical role to perform. Their deliberations, and public challenges, shoul d inform policy development and executive decision-making.

Far too often, I still hear from scrutiny councillors who are being ignored, or frustrated by executives who do not see the value of the scrutiny function.

It is true the executive is not required to respond to, let alone take account of, recommendations coming out of scrutiny - but they ignore a well-argued, clearly evidenced scrutiny review at their peril.

Of course, council leaders and their cabinet colleagues - and other executives - might already be thinking about initiating their own Big Conversation.

Jane Martin

Executive director,

Centre for Public Scrutiny

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